I bet you think I'm talking about Groupon here, which faced a well-deserved firestorm of online protest over its Super Bowl ad that actually mocked the plight of the people of Tibet to get more people to sign up for pedicure discounts. (OK, that's the Cliff Notes version.)
But I'm not. I'm still hung up on Kenneth Cole, who last week, infamously tweeted: "Millions are in uproar in #Cairo. Rumor is they heard our new collection is now available online at http://bit.ly/KCairo --KC."
Whoops. Or "not whoops," I mean. Here's why I wouldn't classify this as a mere, ill-considered slip-up, but something deeper: I first heard about this politically insensitive tweet when Business Insider's Henry Blodgett mused about it on Twitter, saying: "Hey, @kennethcole, who's the idiot who sent this tweet? Has he/she been fired yet? http://read.bi/hdMVmj."
But reading the tweet, I thought to myself, well, actually, that sounds exactly like Kenneth Cole himself. I couldn't put a finger on it -- but the tweet seemed to echo the tone and outrageous sensibility of Kenneth Cole print ads I just couldn't call up from the back recesses of my brain at the time. He meant it. Google did the work for me of conjuring up those ads, and, as I thought, the tweet was completely in keeping with the Kenneth Cole brand. Examples? You got 'em:
· When Imelda Marcos and her president/dictator husband were exiled from the Philippines after the 1986 revolution, she left behind a rather large shoe collection. Kenneth Cole ran an ad with the headline: ""Imelda Marcos bought 2,700 pairs of shoes. She could've at least had the courtesy to buy a pair of ours."
But that's just a warm-up. Here are some other gems (with a hat tip to the former "Lies Well Disguised" feature on Gawker):
· Post 9/11: An ad that said "GOD DRESS AMERICA."
· Another that said: "On
Sept. 12th, families returned to the dining room table.
TODAY IS NOT A DRESS REHEARSAL."
· After Katrina: "Hurricanes aren't ending. And bird flu is
· And this one, its time frame not completely clear: "The ports are secure. But there are other things DUBAI."
Though Cole has certainly done his share of good works - and often promoted them through his advertising -- he is capable of exploiting any news event in the name of selling shoes. It doesn't matter if thousands of people are protesting or dying or homeless -- or whether the wife of an ousted dictator owns thousands of shoes.
The difference, this time, was that Cole effectively posted his ad on Twitter -- and, as he's now discovered, the platform makes all the difference. The previous examples were all print ads, with most of them predating Twitter and other social platforms. In Marcos' case, the ad even pre-dated the Web. So while columnists expressed outrage at some of the ads above, the outrage was containable; in other words, just enough to give the brand a few headlines, but not enough to damage it. The pros of being in the public eye outweighed the cons. But now the balance has shifted, and Kenneth Cole can't keep the outrage set at 11; not when an ill-considered tweet turns into a wildfire.
Therefore, I'd argue, Kenneth Cole has to rethink not only what he tweets, but what his brand is. It can't be about controversy for the sake of controversy anymore. That's just too dangerous.
The good news, if Cole will heed it, is that he could, potentially, use those same channels to amplify the good things he's done with his advertising, particularly in supporting causes that he has championed for decades, like HIV/AIDS awareness,. Leveraging social channels to do good is harder than using them to dial up controversy, but we all know doing this tweeting business well is harder than it looks.
Kenneth Cole, it's time to change your brand.